India’s Changing Consumer Economy: A Cultural PerspectiveAlladi Venkatesh, University of Califomia, Irvinetime and effort over a period of several years. Their interpretations may be different from those of indigenous scholars but they are nevertheless well-informed and well-founded. Although I am an Indian by birth, I couldn’t have gained the knowledge required for my work without doing field work in India for sufficiently long duration (seven months) and studying the relevant literattire that provided me with impxjrtant theoretical insights needed to interpret my empirical observations.
ABSTRACTAs India moves from a production oriented mixed economy toa consumer society, thexe is a need to understand the forces behind this transition. In this paper, I examine a number of cultural and social Üiemes accompanying the consumerist trends in India. Although India remains in the bottom half of the world economies, there is every reason to believe that this is not likely to last long, for many structural changes aie evident including the transformation of the middle class which is at the vanguard of the consumer revolution.
RISING CONSUMERISM IN INDIAINTRODUCTIONThis papjer examines the changing consumer scene in India.
Unlike some of the other Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Taiwan, where the “consumer revolution” has already forged ahead, or is in progress, India has been a slow starter in this push for change. However, recent trends suggest that a wave of consumerism is spjieading to India also. This paper is based partly on my ethnographic field work conducted in Madras, aSouthern Indian city of apjproximately five million people, and partly on a reading of secondary sources. ThLs should be considered work in progress and, therefore, only some initial ideas are presented here.
The reader is also referred to other related works undertaken by the author (Venkatesh1994/95 a, 1994/95b; Venkatesh and Swamy 1994/95).The general presentation in. this papjer will be thematic or topical rather than analytical, or theoretical. That is, the paper explores several themes instead of a unifying set of research questions OT a single theory.
Thus this is a thick description of Indian culture and India as a consumer society.SOME GENERAL COMMENTSSeveral authors have pcjinted out the growing economic andconsumer power of India. Many multinational corporations are beginning to invest in India. In this respect, India is no different from many other emerging consumer economies, whether they are in Eastem Europe, Asia or Latin America (Amould 1989, Belk1988, Ger andBelk 1990, Witkowski 1993).
This fact by itself does not give any special clue to the Indian scene unless one also examines what peculiar circumstances pjertain to India. In other words, just because there may be similarities across different markets and cultures on certain dimensions, it does not mean that the content and pattems of the developjments are the same. The paper will not provide a comparative analysis of India with other countries where similar developments may be taking place. My expjerience in India has taught me some impjortant lessons.
With the burgeoning of comparative studies, there may be a tendency among researchers to draw quick conclusions about cultures in which they may have only superficial familiarity. Any serious study ofdifferent cultures requires some deep laiowledge gained through a propjer study of the culture. See Amould (1989) for a good example of writing with great cultural deptli and understanding. This can be accomplished by a knowledge of the literature, the economic scene, and important cultural works that reflect the culture in some meaningful terms.
A second lesson that I have leamt is thatbelonging to a partictilar cultural group does not immediately qualify one toclaim scholarly expertise on that group. It certainly helps, no doubt. For example, many of the best works on India are written by non-Indian scholars who have devoted a great deal ofConstimerism is used here in the sense of the developjment of consumer oriented tendencies, marked by the avmlability of a variety of manufactured consumer goods and active advertising of the products in various media. Much research exists on theevolution of consumer societies in the West.
Although there are some common characteristics in these societies, there are also many differences. The differences are based on cultural variations within each culture. This is the reason why I have proposed a newparadigm for the study of consumerism based on cross-cultural differences. I have labeled this “ethnoconsumerism” (Venkatesh 1994a).
Recent cross-cultural work has shown us how the same products may undergo different consumer usages and experiences based cn particular cultural norms and practices. The case in point is tlie motor scooter (dy Pessler 1992). The author describes in great detail the cultural context and experience of the motor scooter in threx; different cultures, Italy, England and India. The vehicle was marketed as an aesthetic object in Italy, it became a mark of rebellion among punk groups in England, and a family/personal utility transpjortation in India.
Part of the rising consumerism in India may be east in thegeneral context of global tendencies in consumerism. Recent work suggests that global diffusionof consumerism has been aided by the expansion of multinationals, the diffusion of telecommunication and satellite technologies, the general dissatisfaction with socialist political regimes and rising economic success in East Asian countries. Certainly, recent moves in India echo these developments. What is hapjpeni ng in India may also be described in postmodem terms.
Indian development doi3s not foUow standard chronological sequences obsen^ed in some Westem societies. Models of social change do not follow any known pjattems of change. Modemistmethods found in the conventional social sciences have limited value when the objective is to capture change in non-Westemcultures. This is because modemist thinking is regimented, very rationalistic and (pjseudo)scientifically oriented.
Postmodemist thinking accommodates non-linear thinking, and is open-minded when it comes to altemate or non-orthodox pattems. For example, some new technologies in India are difñising faster than some old technologies. So, one cannot use the historical progression of the West as a model to study India. Indian consumer scene is replete with what mightbe misintiapreted by the modemist to be contradictions and the juxtaposition of opjposites (and therefore, non-natural), but in reality they representhighly symbolic modes of behavior much of which must be understood within the Indian culturalframework.
The Discourse of ConsumerismIn this category, we include the rhetoric of consumerism ineveryday life. A large part of consumerism depjends on advertising. A second aspect of Consumerism discourse relates to the everyday323Advances in Consumer ResearchVolume 21, ©1994324 / India As A Developing Consumer Economy: A Cultural Perspective pattems of behavior one expects tofindin consumerism or commerciaUsm. In India, there is a burgeoning of consumer related anieles from branding to lifestyles to fashion in pxypular media.
Newspapers have regular columns devoted to these matters. A number of magazines have appeared in the area of advertising, business, women’s fashion that constantly discuss these issues. Much of Indian consumerism is directly dependent on what goes on infeature films and the movie industry. In a country, where the celebrities used to be poUticians and public figures, they have been gradually replacedby movie actors and actresses, and business celebrities.
Thus the discourse of consumerism can be seen in media, movies, and other entertainment forms.Televisual CultureThe televisual culture in India is marked by strong consumerism and commercialism. Singhal and Rogers (1989) have already established how influential the television has become as a cultural and entertainment medium. The TV reaches the four comers ofIndia as no other technology has done in the country’s history.
The next development within the context of television is the consumer advertising. Consumer advertising is burgeoning with the anival of satellite TV, or more specificaUy, S tar TV. A mix of domestic and multinational brands are advenised on Star TV as for example, Bajaj scooters, Stayfree sanitary napkins, Pepsi’s Hostess Chips, McDoweU Whiskey, just to name a few. The diffusionof consumerism is further accelerated by the sponsoring of sports, concerts and other entertainment for the pubUc.
The participation of industries in the cultural production system is on the increase. To provide a glimpse of the quantitative developments of advenising industry in India here is an excerpt from arecent article (Mulchandani 1992). “Advertising in the visual medium stands at Rupees 410 crore (US$ 130m)..
.This market in the next five years is expected to boom going upto Rupees 1500 crore (US$ 480m). Advenising in most developing economies stands at 1.5 to 2 per cent of the total GNP.
In India it stands at. 1 per cent. .The potential for growth is tremendous.
And money is flowing freely.”New Technologies / Consumer ElectronicsIndian economy is also changing with the advent of newtechnologies, bonically, the traditional technologies have not had much impact on Indian consumer. For example, very littie of the recent changes in India can be attributed to the telephone or the automobile both of which have existed in India for a long time. These same technologies have had profound impact on Westemindustrial economies in the last five decades.
The telephone system in Indiais highly underdeveloped and is run by the govemment. It is indeed the butt of many jokes and ridicule in India. In the case of automobUes, the impact has been minimal because very fewIndians could afford the automobile.On the other hand, there are some other technologies whichhave made a difference in Indian life, the motor scooter, the television and the VCR, and other household appliances Uke the refrigerator and the cooking stove.
The motor scooter and the motor cycle have become ubiquitous because of their affordability and maneuverabiUty. Many young famiUes and individual professionals, both male and female, use motor scooters as personal transportation. Much of the revolutionary changes in India can be attributed to the emergence of consumer technologies. The first impact of this is the access to electronic information, and entenainment.
More specifically, ithas an impact on tastes in music, popular or cla.ssical, exposure to various entertainment forms from different cultures. This is also a prelude to what one might caU the development of amass culture society. Another consequence of this is the development of the material culture.
India in the Global technological ContextSinghal and Rogers (1989) have initiated imponant researchon the diffusion of television and VCRs in India with interesting implications for the pxjpular-cultural practices in Indian communities. Four developments have begun to change the general nature of inquiry relative to technology. First the rise of postindustrialism and infonnation technologies has sensitized researchers to a radically different technological environment which is not amenable to standard modes of inquiry that were originally developed to investigate material technology. Second, the modem technologies have begun to interconnect the world in unprecedented ways giving a new meaning to the world order.
This interconnectedness seems to imply the emergence of a universal language of technology which couldpotentially bridge cultural differences. Third, the ascendance of Eastem countries such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan as theproducers of modem technologies and the accompanying rapiddiffusion of modem technologies within those countries, hasprompted researchers to view technologies in a non-developmental, culture-specific framework. Thus for the first time in several centuries the sources of some new technologies are no longer located in the Westem hemisphere. Finally, as Appadurai (1988) has pointed out in a different context countries like India which are experiencing new levels of material success have begun to view their cultural practices in a self-conscious, self-reflective fashion without using Westem yardsticks of what is acceptable and not acceptable.
These developments stand in contrast to the notions of modemization and Westemization which dominated earUer thinking on the subject (Srinivas 1966) (see next section for a discussion of this issue). Previous research on India has dealt with issues of social change occurring due to modemization and Westemization. WhUe modemization was used as a broad concept dealing with urbanization, social mobUity and new media experiences, Westemization was identified with social and cultural pattems dealing with clothing, eating, language and the like. Although these are still vaUd concepts to analyze contemporary Indian ettios, they can only serve as a back drop.
Recent work by Singhal and Rogers (1989) is an interestingexample of the ap)proach that one may use in studying technological change. They have been studying the cultural shifts occurring within the Indian entertainment scene as a result of the arrival of TVsand VCRs. The technological diffusionof both TVs and VCRs has been rather astonishing and cannot be completely explained by economic variables such as disposable income and standard of Uving. In fact their diffusion pattem is unlike that of some other technologies such as telephone, refrigerator and the automobile.
It seems more to do with the pattems of culture than mere economic processes.One can of course venture an explanation to the Indians’adoption of modem consumer technologies in terms of class ideology and consumption styles as Appadurai (1988) attempted to show with respect to certain aspects of food consumption. But this is not plausible because thehistorical role tliat food has played in Indian culture has no parallel in the adoption of technologies. Nevertheles.
s, it is evident from Appadurai’s work and the work of more recent authors that one has to look for a contemporary theme to better explain the various cultural shifts. For example. Singer (1989) has insightfully characterized the cunent Indian cultural scene in terms of “the coexistence of the past and the present ” This is in direct contrast to some earlier views which have tended toAdvances in Consumer Research (Volume 21) /325repjresent past and pjresent in antagonistic and hierarchical terms. Thus modonization and Westernization were regarded as bothsuperior and antagonistic to traditionalism.
This view is beginning to fade because the current research on India seems to suggest that the Indians are shaping their culture in ways different from those of an earlier generation.The City of Madras-A Transformed Consumer SpaceAny one familiar with Madras would immediately recognizeit, in ^ i t e of its size (Pop: 5 milion), as a sleepy town known for its regional (South Indian) cultural forms, temples and traditional norms and practices. Many Indians, and even foreign visitors, have long considered Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi as modem. Westernized, sophisticated cities leaving Madras in amore traditional mold.
However, in recent years, we are witnessing some forces of change that are moving Madras closer to the oth^ cities in its profile. Much of this seons to be occurring due to rtpid â rise in consumerism. Here is an excerpt from an article (Khandekar 1992):”After all, whatwas Madras in the ’70s..
.[Ilt] was just abigidli [a local food item]. With its simply dressed pjeople, its lack of red lipstick and bursting 5a/vi’ar-Jb3m«eze.
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